I was born in Himachal. So, seeing mountains all around all the time was a normal thing. While this was common for all mountain kids, what was different with me was the itch to climb every mountain in front of me and see what was on the other side. Of course it was not possible, but this itch made me climb my first recognized peak “Churdhar” (Sirmaur, Himachal Pradesh), which was 12000 ft high as a Boy Scout in 1963, when I was all of 11 years. Then larger issues of life took precedence as I focused on studies and building a career.
Things changed again when I joined a public sector bank and met a few more wonderful people with a hunger for trekking. “Young Trekkers Club” was formed and we undertook several trekking expeditions over the next few years. One which stands out and was the most challenging, was 22 days “Darcha- Lamayuru Trek” via Shinkun La, Zanskar Valley which we did in 1986. However, again, as I climbed the Corporate ladder, and was immersed in rearing my brood, I forgot all about trekking.
It was only last year when one fine morning my 10-year-old grandson Umair asked me “Nana what is your purpose in life”, that I refocused on my first love. Everest Base Camp was one of the expeditions that had remained on top of my “to do list” for quite a few years. As luck would have it, my friend Suranjana informed me that they were planning an EBC trek and to raise the bar they were also adding 3 Passes and Kala Pathhar peak to make the trek spicier and more challenging. I jumped with joy and gave my consent immediately. This was the easy part, but then the reality dawned on me. I had entered into my 70th year and gone were the days when I could just pack my rucksack and go for any trek at a moment’s notice. Doubts about my mental and physical ability to undertake such a long, arduous and high-altitude trek were raised by the family members and well-wishers. Such thoughts started creeping into my mind also. But then interaction with our trek organizer Col (Retd) Romil in the WhatsApp group raised my spirits and I started preparing and exercising regularly. My routine included jogs, long (20-25 km) hikes with 10-12 kilo backpack and calisthenics on different days. I could feel the stamina and strength creeping back into my old body and my confidence level also propped up. By the end of September, I was raring to go.
The group members met at the Kathmandu airport on 12th October where Romil Sir welcomed us.
After spending the night at Kathmandu, we took a flight for Lukla the next morning on 13th October. Lukla airstrip is perched on a rocky patch of a hill. It’s very small and only small aircrafts like DHC 6 Twin Otter and Dornier 228 etc, which require very small runway, operate on this route. We met our Sherpa guides Ngima and Passang, porters Jetha, Shukra and one more person at the Lukla airport. These guys would prove to be our friends, philosophers, guides and saviours at times, in the days to come.
We had a refreshing cup of tea in a Tea House in Lukla market and thereafter our trek started formally. Weather was clear and sunny with a cool breeze as we soon entered the Sagarmatha National Park. In a couple of hours, we reached Ghat, where we had a sumptuous lunch of daal bhat at Ngima’s tea house cum residence. He also introduced us to the Sherpas’ famous proverb “daal bhat power 24 hour”. After lunch we again walked for about 3 hours to Phakding, a small village on the banks of Dudh Kosi river where our night stay was scheduled. First day was almost a level walk which was not very tiring. So in the evening we climbed up to the Phakding monastery for acclimatization and performed Romil Sir’s favorite ritual of doing 21 push ups at the highest point of the day. Next day, 14th October we set off around 7.30 am for Namche Bazar after having a lavish breakfast. I could feel my breath becoming heavy as the gradient increased. After walking for about 4 hours we reached Jorsaile, where we had lunch. On 14th, we had to gain a height of about 800 meters, so the incline soon became steeper as the path turned into stone stairs. Hills were covered with beautiful thick pine forest walking through which was a pleasure. By evening around 6.00 pm we finally reached Namche Bazar. We were quite tired so after a few refreshing cups of hot tea, we had an early dinner and hit the bed.
15th October was comparatively a light trek so we had breakfast at 8.00 am and hit the road around 9.00 am. First, we went to see Sherpa Tenzing Norgay Memorial situated up the hill for a photo shoot and then to Everest View Hotel. Both places provide the first view of Mount Everest. Fortunately, the weather was very clear and we got a nice view of the highest peak on earth from both places.
We reached Khumjung, our destination for the day by 1.00 pm. This day we gained about 350 meters in altitude. Tanuja came up with the idea to cook the dinner ourselves. Our guide Ngima persuaded the Tea House owner to allow us to cook and team Siddharth and Tanuja came up with yummylicious dinner of egg curry and rice within no time.
16th October again was an easy and level trek to Phortse. Rather than spending a rest day at Namche, which most of the EBC Trekkers do, Romil Sir decided to have 2 small treks on 2 days with slight gain in elevation on each day, for better acclimatization. Having tasted blood the previous day, Tanuja again offered to cook Aalu Parathas in the evening if the host permitted. Ngima could use his magic with the host again and I offered to assist Tanuja. So, two of us occupied the kitchen and Tanuja made lovely parathas, served hot to everyone including our hosts.
It was very satisfying and invigorating to enjoy excellent home like food for two evenings continuously. 17th October we started for Dingboche. There was a gradual incline as we were going to gain about 500 meters in height today. Now I was feeling the altitude effect and losing breath while walking. Thick pine forest cover had vanished gradually in the past two days after Namche and only some shrubs and grass were left in the name of greenery.
All around us we could see high rocky peaks covered with snow, one of which, Amadeblam (mother child peak) was high and conspicuous because of its height and shape. Dingboche is a fairly big village at an altitude of 4410 meters. “Cafe 4410” is one of the highlights of this place and offers a very good variety of quality cuisines and coffee. We spent both our evenings here and had a great time. It was my wedding anniversary and Romil Sir threw a great surprise when, after dinner, Ngima walked in with a big cake. Cake cutting was done with a lot of fanfare and it was shared with all the guests present in the dining hall. This gesture of Romil Sir was very heart touching for me.
Next day, 18th October was kept for an acclimatization drill. So we had a leisurely morning and breakfast and then set off for scaling the Nagarshang peak at 5100 meters. It took us about 3 hours of breathless climb to reach the peak. A couple of our group members faced some altitude related issues on the way, but some comforting and motivation from Romil Sir helped and all of us made it to the top. This was a great morale booster as the tougher part of our trek was about to begin. A drizzle started in the evening which turned into regular rain around 8.00 pm.
When we got up in the morning on 19th October it was still raining. We had our breakfast and left for Chukhung around 9.00 am after wearing our rain gear. After we had walked uphill for about 2 hours the rain converted into snowflakes. I was witnessing a snow fall after several years, so it was really great fun. By the time we reached Chukhung about 6 inches of snow could be seen. After lunch, Romil Sir dropped a bombshell by saying that he is going to climb Chukhung Ri along with Pasang, a 5000 plus meter high peak nearby. It was a very challenging task to climb in such heavy snowfall and very low visibility. Only Sandeep and Hiranya offered to accompany them. They returned back after a few hours when it had turned dark, after successfully climbing the peak.
When we woke up in the morning of 20th October it was still snowing and more than one and half feet of snow was there. As per schedule we were to climb and cross 5550-meter-high Kongama La and reach Lobuche, but considering the weather and snow conditions this path had to be abandoned and we took an alternate route to Lobuche via Dingboche and Thukla pass.
Snow/ rain stopped by the time we reached Dingboche but the climb to Thukla pass tested our stamina as we negotiated around 2 feet of fresh snow. Night at Lobuche was very cold but the pizza we had for dinner was awesome. It was Hiranya’s birthday, so Romil Sir had arranged for a cake which was promptly brought after the dinner. Cake was cut with a lot of gusto and shared with all the guests present in the dining hall. We went to sleep early as we had a long day tomorrow.
Next morning, on 21st October, we moved early for Gorakhshep. It was freezing at sub-zero temperature but the body warmed up after walking for some time. We reached Gorakhshep by noon and after having lunch started our climb to Kala Pathhar peak. At 5700 meters it was the highest point of our trek and the climbing became tougher as we gained height. But all members kept pushing at their own speed and finally all of us made it to the top after about 4 hours of breathless climb. We did a long photo session and the customary pushups session and then started climbing down.
On 22nd October we got up at 5AM, had a quick breakfast and moved out at 6AM for Everest Base Camp. Not much climb was involved so we made it to EBC in about 3 hours. Long photography and pushups sessions followed.
Initially the plan was to reach Dzongla for a night stay, but one of the group members had developed some kind of allergy in her hands probably due to extreme cold conditions in which we walked from Lobuche the previous morning. There was a lot of itching and burning sensation in her hands. As if this was not enough, the poor girl also suffered a minor injury in her leg at the EBC and was facing difficulty while walking. So, it was decided to halt for the night at Lobuche.
On 23rd October, we had a comparatively short trek. So, after a leisurely breakfast we started our journey for the day around 8.00 AM. There were small stretches of climbing up and down hill where we broke some sweat and by lunchtime, we reached Dzongla.
24th October was going to be a testing day as we were to cross Chola pass. We got up at 4.00 am and after having a hurried breakfast and a packet of egg sandwiches for lunch, started by 5.00 am. It was very cold and dark, and we were walking with the help of our head torches. Almost the full moon shone bright among the snow-clad high peaks, presenting a heavenly sight.
After walking for about an hour the climb became steeper. The breathing became heavy, but the body became warmer providing relief from the biting cold. Rising sun from behind the high snow-clad peaks presented a mesmerising scene and almost all of us captured it in our cameras. The gradient increased gradually, and it was getting difficult to walk as we gained height. It took us about 5 hours to reach the top of Chola pass. Last few steps near the top were totally rocky and we had to climb with the help of ropes fixed there for assistance. Everyone was very exhausted and rested for some time, some snacks were also shared. After the usual photo session and pushups we started to climb down from the other side of the Pass.
Although ropes were fixed throughout the slope, yet it took us almost an hour to climb down that treacherous portion of about 500 meters and each of us slipped multiple times, fortunately there were no injuries to anyone. By dusk we reached Draknak after almost 12 hours of hard trekking and were dead tired. We had early dinner and hit the bed.
On 25th October, we marched out around 7.00 am for Gokyo lake. There were small stretches of up and down hill climb. Most of today’s path was over Ngozumba glacier. Though the upper crust, on which we were walking, was stones and soil, it was all ice underneath. Despite sunshine the air around us was bone chilling and whatever water bodies were formed between the gaps were all frozen. It was only after crossing the glacier, when we started climbing uphill that our bodies warmed up. We reached Gokyo village by lunchtime. What a majestic view it was. Absolutely blue water surrounded by snow clad mountains and a few tea houses standing on one side of the lake. We rested after lunch and had a leisurely evening.
We were scheduled to stay at Gokyo on 26th October also. So, it was planned to climb Gokyo Ri, a peak 5357 meters high. We started after breakfast and it took about 4 hours of strenuous climbing to reach the peak. As usual, the Mountain Goat, Sandeep, was the first to reach the top, and Hiranya and I followed after a few minutes. All others came soon after. But the last few meters to the top really tested our stamina and were very challenging.
27th October was going to be another very challenging day as we were heading for 5360 meters high Renjo La pass. We got up at 4.00 am and hit the track around 5.00 am after having breakfast and taking lunch packets. It was quite dark and extremely cold, so we switched on the headlights and wore extra layers of clothing. Despite wearing gloves our hands were freezing, but the body warmed up gradually after walking for an hour or so. Initially it was a gradual climb but after some time the gradient became steeper and demanding. We made it to the top in about 4 hours. There was quite a lot of snow at the top. Fortunately the weather was clear and the view was mesmerising, with several high snow clad peaks visible on all sides. Even a large portion of Gokyo lake was visible from the top. We had some light snacks and then the sessions of photography & push ups followed. On the other side of the Pass we could see a smaller but beautiful Renjo lake.
Gradient on the other side was very steep which was very slippery because of heavy snow. There were no ropes for support, so it took us almost one hour to cover that small distance up to Renjo lake. Here we met two guys who were carrying their bicycles to Gokyo lake. They were not able to climb the treacherous path while carrying bicycles. Our guide Pasang offered to carry the bicycles up to the top. Price was negotiated and this brave heart carried both the cycles to top within no time. Meanwhile we had our lunch and carried on our long march to Lumden. It was kind of a never-ending path, seemed more daunting because climbing up to Renjo La had drained us badly. Finally, we reached Lumden by the time it was turning dark. Had an early dinner and hit the bed.
Next day, 28th October, was also going to be a long walk to Namche Bazar so we set out around 7.00 am. After walking about 2 kms we came across a small rivulet. A careful observation revealed that water had frozen overnight and a transparent layer of ice had formed over the stones on which we had to step to cross the water channel. It was a dicey situation and to avoid any mishap we took a detour and crossed the rivulet over a small bridge of 2 wooden logs. Most of the path today was climbing downhill. After walking for about 3 hours we took a tea and bhajiya break in a small roadside tea shop and then had lunch at Thame. We reached Namche Bazar by late evening as it was turning dark. We had been walking for almost 10-11 hours and were quite tired. Having reached Namche Bazar, we had almost nailed the expedition, so it was time to celebrate. All of us went to the local coffee shop and then some of us joined for a drink of my favorite Old Monk Rum. It was my first drink since I landed in Kathmandu on 12th October as Romil Sir had asked us to abstain from alcohol during the trek.
29th October again was a long journey. Though going downhill, we were to cover two days’ distance (while coming uphill) that day, so it was going to be a testing and tiring day. After breakfast we set out around 7.00 am. It was a nice sunny day and our path was covered with beautiful tall pine trees.
We reached Phakding around noon and stopped for lunch and a little rest thereafter. We hit the road again for Lukla, our destination for the day. We reached Lukla around 5.00 pm and we again had a grand celebration to mark the end of our tough, highly demanding yet most enjoyable trek. 30th October we took a flight for Kathmandu and after staying there for one more day, which we utilized for local sight-seeing, I got a flight back to India on 1st November. That marked the end of one of the most remarkable and challenging journeys of my life.